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Leadership versus power: nexus or dichotomy?


Olivia A. Smith

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If you want to test a man’s character – give him power. – Abraham Lincoln
In 1788, George Washington was elected the first president of the United States. He reluctantly ran for a second term in 1792, but he refused to run for a third term. He then retired as he had done previously to his farm. When he left, he set a leadership precedent which lasted 150 years.Washington died in 1799, the year that Napoleon Bonaparte became the ruler of France. In contrast to Washington, however, Bonaparte could not acquire enough power.
His legendary lust for command drove him to take over much of Europe. “Power is my mistress,” he once claimed, “I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.” Years later, having lost all power and living in exile, Bonaparte lamented, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”
Power and leadership are inextricable – they come with the territory. After all, one expects a leader to be in firm control of the reins. Unfortunately, like Bonaparte, history is rife with accounts of people who shamelessly abused their power. Effective leadership wields power, but abuse of power is frowned upon and is indeed not the moral of this article.
A true leader has self-esteem and self-confidence and does not seek power to bolster his or her feeling of self-worth. Are you cut out to be a leader? Consider the words of John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Therefore, everyone has the potential and the capacity to lead because everyone has the ability to influence others – not everyone is good at it, however.
According to the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), power incontestably plays a role in effective leadership and individuals at all levels of the organization have access to power. Several interesting issues and conclusions were drawn in a report developed out of a survey from 260 participants attending a leadership development programme at CCL’s Colorado Springs campus where the typical participant was male between 36 and 50 years old, representing upper-middle management or executive level management.
The leader has several sources of power, but according to the survey the effective leader of the future must leverage control from these three sources of power: the power of relationships (89 per cent), the power of information (57 per cent) the power of expertise (48 per cent).
These findings are congruent with our current business environment. Our business environment is defined by mind-boggling layers of technology, social and informational networks. The world of business can be virtual, paperless, real-time and has all but metamorphosed from its traditional face-to-face boardroom incarnation. It seems logical then, that the effective leader of the 21st century must be able to manage relationships effectively in all spheres and with all stakeholder groups – those current, potential, and particularly those previously broken.
According to the results, competence in managing the power of relationships was cited as an important tool when dealing with bosses, peers, and those under your direct report. The organization is a dynamic business microcosm and the effective leader must have strong emotional intelligence skills if he/she is to further the objectives of the organization. So the leader must create room in his agenda to invest more time in existing relationships, identifying new brokers with whom to develop relationships, repairing neglected/broken relationships and sometimes even repairing their own image. If all this sounds difficult, it is because it is. Although we all can be leaders at our levels, it takes adroitness at a few more special skills to access the higher rung of effective leadership.
The effective leader must also be sufficiently networked to have access to information and must also be the conduit for sharing that information freely. Information in this case need not be confined to technical information, but could be as simple as information used to mentor those in the organization.
In some ways, then, in order to exercise power in leadership, leaders must first learn how to relinquish some of that power to their employees and learn to trust them as well. Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge affirm this idea when they quoted Jill Cleveland a Finance Manager at Apple.
She said she had to learn to trust her employees and “after being responsible only for myself for so long, it was very difficult to have to relinquish control. But I understood that in order for my employees, and thus myself, to be successful, I needed to learn to develop a cohesive and collaborative team, beginning with trust as the framework”. This is indeed a powerful self-actualizing statement.
Many leaders will affirm that although some technical expertise is important, it is not a game-changing asset in the portfolio of the effective leader; hence its relatively low ranking among respondents. Leaders have a vision and are able to inspire others towards that vision. They hire for skill, attitude and competence toward the achievement of that vision. It is the motivation and management of the human capital assets in the leader’s organization which ensures the goals and objectives are met.
We can conclude then that there is a nexus between leadership and power. There is no need therefore to become inebriated with power when you are a leader or about to become one; stay within well accepted limits. Leaders are found in every stratum of life – just look on primary school playgrounds.
Power comes with the territory of the leader but exploitation of position and prestige is ill-advised as it is both viewed and reacted to negatively and can paralyze action towards the ultimate goal. The most effective leaders in the future will be those who are able to create the appropriate mélange of strategies through productive relationships, technology, technical expertise, and shared power to realize the overall desired results.
This is the third article of a four-part series produced for the Central Bank of Barbados leading up to its conference Leading In Tough Times: Confronting Challenges And Inspiring Hope.

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